Why you knew Abe Vigoda

Abe Vigoda wasn’t born to play Hamlet. He was born to play Phil Fish and Sal Tessio.

Those aren’t consolation prizes. They’re the reason Abe Vigoda became an actor and the reason that when he died Tuesday, a month short of his 95th birthday, everyone who had seen him in action remembered him and smiled.

As legacies go, that’s a winner.

Vigoda was a character actor, which outside the acting biz may sound like the minor leagues. It isn’t. Acting is almost always a team sport, and without characters, the stars have no game to play in.

Besides, most stars are character actors who just happened to hit on a role or roles that elevated their profile.

“Being a ‘character actor’ is why you act in the first place,” said veteran actor Giancarlo Esposito a couple of years ago after he soared to prominence from a season on “Breaking Bad.”

“You want to create characters. That’s what acting is about. If your main goal is to become a ‘star,’ you probably won’t.”

Not that most actors object to becoming a star. It comes with some nice perks.

But like other good character actors, Abe Vigoda didn’t have to become a star to make us know his name.

Perhaps the simplest proof lies in the fact that he created two memorable characters who seemed to be total opposites: Sal Tessio, in the 1971 film “The Godfather,” and Phil Fish, in the ’70s TV sitcom “Barney Miller.”

Tessio was an ambitious guy whose takeover plan — to kill the Godfather’s son and assume control of the mob — went bad.

Vigoda played him as menacing, dry-ice cold. That describes a lot of “Godfather” characters, but Vigoda crystallized Tessio in a way that made audiences shiver and think: “Yeah, that guy is what this world is about.”

You didn’t want to know him and you certainly didn’t want to meet him. But you felt like you understood the whole story better because you’d seen him at work.

Even his exit was instructive, when he calmly and almost incidentally remarked to his executioners that his plan to kill Michael Corleone was nothing personal, just business.

Tessio’s resonance was part of the reason why it was so impressive that four years later, Vigoda crossed the acting street to become Phil Fish.

Phil shared Tessio’s sunken eyes and the largest set of eyebrows since Groucho Marx. Only this time Vigoda parlayed them into comedy.

It’s possible that at one time, Phil Fish harbored some glimmer of Tessio’s ambition. Now he just wanted the bathrooms to work.

If most of us didn’t know Sal, we all knew Phil. Certainly at work, probably in our living room. He was the kvetching old guy for whom everything seemed to be a burden.

To listen to Phil, there were no solutions, only problems. We’ve all had days like that. Phil just expanded the concept and seemed to have a whole life like that.

The dirty little secret, which we all knew, was that Phil didn’t really feel that way at all. If he had, he would simply have been tiresome.

We knew he could still make things work, just as we knew that for all his complaining about his wife Beatrice, he couldn’t have lived without her and wouldn’t have wanted to.

Abe Vigoda made it look effortless to bring out Phil’s inner Everyman. It wasn’t. Fish was the product of everything Vigoda had done before, in acting classes, in front of cameras and on stages large and small.

By the time he played Fish, or Tessio, Vigoda had long since passed Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour benchmark. He could make it look easy because he had done it before. And before that.

When he passed away, he left Tessio and Fish behind. He also left dozens of other characters, images we might remember only in fleeting glimpses.

They all add up to what mattered and what in the end gave Abe Vigoda what he deserved: a nice house where the bathrooms worked.

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